By Kim Watts-Diaz
Alton Brown wants kids to play with their food. No, not while they’re eating it, of course – but as they learn to cook alongside Mom and Dad.
“Play is an essential teaching device,” says the mad-scientist-cum-chef who hosts Food Network’s Good Eats. “One of the mantras we have on the show is ‘you can’t educate if you don’t entertain,’ so play is an integral part of what I do.”
What Alton Brown does, as a celebrated chef and TV personality, is use science with a dash of silliness to break down the complexities of cooking (and eating) well – even without recipes. “Giving a recipe isn’t enough for me,” says Brown. “When I was learning to cook, I wanted to understand what was going on in the food, and that led me naturally to science. Although there’s an intrinsic kind of art to it, there’s no part of the culinary world that isn’t science-reliant.”
More Fun in the Kitchen
Brown’s unconventional, but educational, approach to cooking on Good Eats has brought the show a following that it wasn’t really expecting – kids! Plus, schoolteachers, home school associations and parents tune in regularly for fun ways to teach practical applications of math and science. “Plus I guess I’m still enough of a kid myself to qualify,” jokes Brown, “So kids come to the show naturally.”
Bringing Kids to the Kitchen
ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Kids will literally come to Brown’s show, as well as to shows hosted by Emeril, Rachel Ray, Al Roker and other well-known chefs, during Food Network’s “Cook with Your Kids Week,” Oct. 3-9. Dozens of kid-themed episodes especially focused on bringing families together to cook, and guest-starring pint-sized chefs, will air every day during the weeklong event. Alton Brown’s Good Eats will feature Brown’s 13-year-old ‘nephew’ (actually an actor) assisting him with creative takes on kid-approved basics: soups and sandwiches.
ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“They are extraordinarily basic foods, yes, but once you’ve got the skills down for both of them, you can pretty much feed yourself for life,” he says. “And although people think sandwiches are easy, making a good sandwich takes a little more skill.”
ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">But would a child be able to master those skills? “My cooking partner [during the ‘Cook with Your Kids’ episodes] didn’t have any cooking skills to start, and we had to teach him everything he was going to do on camera, so what you see is really real and imperfect,” says Brown. “We show him doing the best you can expect a beginner to do; we portray the skill set and expectations honestly, and we have a lot of fun.”
ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Brown has had plenty of practice cooking with kids at home as well, and is quite shrewd about children’s ability to cook at various ages and stages. “My daughter’s only 4-and-a-half years old, so she can’t help that much yet, but my wife and I try to integrate her into everything I do, often,” says Brown. “The other night, we were eating boiled shrimp over the sink, and she was just so into peeling them. Now this is a food that if it just showed up on her plate she wouldn’t eat it, but because I was able to integrate it, talk about the fact that it looks a lot like an insect and count its legs – all the sudden it became an exploration.”
ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“I’ve found that the food my daughter personally interacts with at the grocery store and the house, she tends to be more open to eating – and she’s a very picky eater.” It’s a neat trick that will work on your kids too, says Brown.
Tools, Time and Togetherness
“There are three parts to every meal: there’s shopping together, there’s cooking together and there’s eating together. I don’t believe that any of the three are worth much [in teaching children] unless you do all three,” says Brown. “Shopping with kids helps them to not only learn budgets, but to truly value food and where it comes from, which by and large I don’t think they do.”
• Give your kids their own work area and ‘tools’. “When you get ready to cook together, regardless of whether kids are 4 or 14, it’s important that they have a work area and tools that are just theirs. My daughter, for instance, has her own apron, her own measuring cup; she’s got her own measuring spoon – they are hers. You don’t have to double everything in your kitchen for your kids, but just giving them possession of select tools empowers them to learn.”
• Assign age-appropriate tasks. Children as young as 4 are adept at scooping and measuring, but shouldn’t do any cutting or work with heat, advises Brown. “At ages they can start developing some cutting skills with small knives and very aware adult supervision; and they can certainly start putting together more complex things, like assembling lasagna in a pan,” he says. “At 10, they can work with heat and a few more knife skills, and if you’ve prepared them, a 13-year-old can do anything that a fussy French chef can do: chopping, dicing, sautéing, working with high heat. Start with reasonable expectations, and add more as they become appropriate.”
• Have a little fun. “Give them tools, give them space, let them explore and don’t worry about messes,” says Brown. “The kitchen is the place for messes – it’s meant to get dirty. It’s a playroom and a laboratory”
• Take your time. The most important tool you need to have when cooking together as a family, however, is time, says Brown. “Don’t bring your kids into the kitchen at and try to have dinner on the table at 6, and don’t stress. It’s gotta be more about the trip than the destination.”
“I don’t cook with my daughter unless I’m sure we have enough time to do it together, and I can simplify it enough to make it work. By the time we get to the dinner table, we’ve had a lot of great conversation already; it’s not just a few minutes at the dinner table asking ‘how was your day.’ We’ve already gotten into each other’s day. Putting dinner on the table becomes the crown of the event, and the conversation.”
Kim Watts-Diaz is the editor of Houston Family, a United Parenting Publication.